Aug 24, 2023 - World

Putin breaks silence on apparent death of Wagner boss Prigozhin

A screen grab captured from a video shared online showing Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of Russian private security company Wagner on Aug. 21 in a video for the first time since his rebellion against the Russian administration in an unspecified location in Africa. Photo: Wagner Account/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin called Yevgeny Prigozhin a man with a "complicated fate" in his first comments since Wednesday's plane crash that is believed to have killed the Wagner boss.

The big picture: Prigozhin's presumed death comes two months after he led a short-lived rebellion in what was seen as the biggest challenge to Putin's rule since the Russian president came to power more than two decades ago.

  • Speculation immediately swirled around what — or who — may be to blame for the crash.

What they're saying: In a televised meeting, Putin offered his condolences to the victims of the crash.

  • He said Prigozhin was "a person with a complicated fate," but he stopped short of officially confirming the Wagner boss' death.
  • "He made some serious mistakes in life, but he also achieved necessary results," Putin added.

Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a press conference later Thursday that the Defense Department believes, based "on a variety of factors," that Prigozhin was likely "killed."

  • Ryder would not explain how the Pentagon came to its conclusion, but he said it has not found evidence of a surface-to-air missile being used to shoot down the plane.
  • "We assess that information to be inaccurate," he said. "Nothing indicates, no information suggests, that there was a surface-to-air missile."

Details: The Federal Air Transport Agency has launched an investigation.

  • Three crew members and seven passengers were on board the Embraer jet, per Russian media. Ten bodies were found at the crash site near the town of Kuzhenkino, according to Russian state media, citing government emergency services.

A playback of the flight showed that the plane was detected near Moscow around 2:59pm (UTC) on Wednesday, according to Flightradar24, a live air traffic website. At 3:11pm UTC, the aircraft lost signal at 28,000 feet in altitude.

  • Russian state media reported that the private jet was on its way from Moscow to St. Petersburg.
  • Putin was in the Kursk region when the crash took place.

Flashback: Putin had called Prigozhin and his mercenary forces traitors who would suffer "inevitable punishment" during June's short-lived mutiny, which ended after a deal in which the Wagner boss agreed to end his forces' march toward Moscow and go to Belarus in exchange for amnesty and certain security guarantees.

  • Prigozhin, however, was spotted in Russia multiple times since the deal was brokered.
  • He also met with Putin days after leading the rebellion. Prigozhin insisted at the time that his aim was not to overthrow the government, but to protect his forces. He had publicly feuded with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu for months and called for his removal.

Who was Yevgeny Prigozhin?

A former convict, Prigozhin had known Putin since the 1990s, when he was running a restaurant in St. Petersburg and Putin was a rising politician, Axios' Dave Lawler and Ivana Saric write.

  • After Putin took power, Prigozhin won so many government contracts that he was nicknamed "Putin's chef."
  • His interests soon stretched far beyond catering. He was indicted in the U.S. in 2018 for his role in running the Internet Research Agency, which spread disinformation online during the 2016 election campaign. He was on the FBI's most-wanted list.
  • For years, Prigozhin denied any links to Wagner, but he had become the group's public face — and the Russian military's most vicious critic — since the invasion.
  • Prigozhin's Wagner forces became a key part of the war effort, particularly in the long and brutal battle for Bakhmut, but many had since moved to Belarus and are reportedly training soldiers there.

Go deeper: U.S. designates Russia's Wagner Group as a transnational criminal organization

Editor's note: This story has been updated with the Pentagon's assessment.

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